Interview with Jean-Claude Juncker Europeans 'Must Learn World Affairs'

In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, 62, discusses the EU's growing self-confidence, its differences with President Trump and Brexit negotiations in the wake of an unclear election outcome in Britain.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, have you recently found yourself looking at your mobile phone anxiously when you wake up each morning?

Juncker: No. Why would you think that?

SPIEGEL: We thought you'd want to know what Donald Trump tweeted during the night.

Juncker: If Mr. Trump has tweeted anything worth mentioning, I'll be told. It doesn't cause me to sit up agitated in bed in the morning.

SPIEGEL: But it's different when Angela Merkel sends you a text in the morning, isn't it?

Juncker: She texts me directly and never without reason. And that interests me. We have a solid and close relationship.

SPIEGEL: Does Donald Trump represent the last chance for Europe?

Juncker: That may be going a little too far. Trump is a partner for us who cannot be easily categorized. Putting it in the noblest way possible, his understanding of politics is a little different from ours here in Europe. The way he acts forces us Europeans to take on a new responsibility. We are not standing with our backs up against the wall, but, to put it as pithily as the German chancellor has : We can no longer rely on the U.S. the way we could in the past.

SPIEGEL: The result of just a few months of Trump's tenure is sadly clear: The new president is laying waste to the climate agreement, he is damaging trust in NATO and has shown contempt for the EU. Has the strategy of containing Trump failed?

Juncker: This attempt hasn't even really happened yet to the full extent. Trump's climate decision is a mistake. We tried in vain at the G-7 summit in Sicily to dissuade him from it. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were very strong, and even my humble self tried to persuade him. Trump knows that he is encountering a complete lack of understanding in Europe, but it's apparent that he's not very impressed by it. My experience, however, has been that American presidents take a greater interest in Europe over the course of their term.

SPIEGEL: Europe's peace and prosperity in the past decades has in no small part hinged on the stability and military protection granted by the Americans. Is the West witnessing the end of trans-Atlantic cooperation?

Juncker: I have no doubt that the U.S., even under Trump, will stick to the mutual defense commitment in the NATO treaty in the event of an emergency. Trump described NATO as being obsolete during his election campaign, but he made clear afterward that he considers the alliance to be an indispensable necessity. Still, it would have been preferable if he had clearly said that in Brussels instead of lecturing the Europeans on defense spending.

SPIEGEL: Your new paper on defense policy seems strikingly ambitious. It speaks of the expansion of EU military operations, of operations against terrorist groups and of naval deployments in hostile environments. Are you not raising false expectations in suggesting that the EU will be capable of defending itself in the future?

Juncker: I am not pursuing a militarization of the EU, but we can no longer afford our small-state mentality when it comes to defense policy. Let me give you a simple example: In Europe we spend almost half of the military budget of the U.S. on defense, but we achieve only 15 percent of the Americans' efficiency. There are 178 weapons systems in Europe, and 30 in the U.S. We have 17 types of combat tanks; the Americans have one. If we more strongly consolidated procurement, we could save 25 to 100 billion euros. We will not be conducting global affairs with brute force -- the EU wasn't conceived for that. But because the world has become what it is, global affairs is something that we Europeans are going to have to learn.

SPIEGEL: Do the Europeans have an alternative to the Americans?

Juncker: I am a champion of trans-Atlantic relations and I do not believe there is any other option available to us than working closely together with America -- including Canada. There is no other alliance option, but the same is true for the U.S.

SPIEGEL: Trump obviously sees things differently. His Rose Garden speech was sheer aggressive nationalism. He spoke of "us" and "you" and that he had been elected to represent the people of Pittsburg and not Paris …...

Juncker: … ... which prompted an immediate denial from the mayor of Pittsburgh. Trump's comparison was also unfortunate because the people of Pittsburgh didn't vote for him -- they voted for Hillary Clinton. And we must also remember that even though Trump makes decision for the U.S., many large cities and American states are still committed to the climate treaty. There hasn't been a total loss of the U.S. -- many in American society think like Europeans and not like Trump.

SPIEGEL: The other strongman Europe is currently having problems with is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. You recently had a private meeting with him. What is your impression: Does he still even want his country to become a member of the EU? And: Do you want it to?

Juncker: I told Erdogan that Turkey needs to come to terms with its European intentions. Many people in Turkey are pro-European minded, but that sentiment is very limited within the government. It appears to be aiming to hinder EU accession and pin the blame on Brussels. That, in my opinion, is not in the interest of the Turkish people. I am holding to my agreements. We declared Turkey to be an accession state at the 1999 Helsinki Summit. That still applies.

SPIEGEL: Did you discuss the detention of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel with Erdogan?

Juncker: I discussed the general situation for journalists there, but I didn't directly refer to Yücel. The man is apparently being wrongly held in jail and not even staff at the German consulate have proper access. It's absolutely scandalous. The Turks know that if they want to join the EU, then they must respect our rules. We are a union of beliefs, not a bunch of squawking chickens. But if we continue talks with Erdogan, that doesn't mean we have to bow down to him.

SPIEGEL: Is the EU still credible when it insists that countries like Turkey adhere to human rights? Even among its own member states, the EU tolerates countries that are acting in increasingly authoritarian ways. Poland's government is staging an attack against the rule of law and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to shut down universities he doesn't like.

Juncker: If I may, there are still differences between Poland and Hungary, on the one hand, and those parts of the world that deny human rights, including elements in Turkey, on the other. It is, however, true that we inside the Commission are currently engaged in a contentious debate with Poland and Hungary. We are making very clear in what areas we do not share these governments' interpretation of the law. For that, we need the kind of patience that you do not seem to have, but which I am going to have to muster.

SPIEGEL: The German government is also losing its patience and is calling for countries that violate the foundations of a constitutional state to be denied European subsidies. You've rejected such calls. Why?

Juncker: To be totally honest: There are times when I, too, would like to revoke subsidies for stubborn countries. But reason and experience have shown me that it would not be the right way. We don't need to sow any new discord in the European Union.

SPIEGEL: The British historian Timothy Garton Ash has accused the EU of appeasement in its dealings with Orbán and Co. Consistent with that interpretation is the instance when you jovially greeted Orbán with the words, "Hello, dictator."

Juncker: I have spoken to Orbán like that for years. But that last time, someone was hanging around with a directional microphone and caught it, thus drawing more attention to it. I get along well with Orbán, at least personally. In terms of policy, there is less understanding. We often clash.

SPIEGEL: What's it like when the two of you fight? Does Orbán get angry?

Juncker: No, he never flips out. I'm more likely to do that. What riles me are the questionnaires he sent to Hungarian households in which he said: "Stop Brussels." I told him: By doing that you are stopping yourself, because you are also Brussels. After all, he takes part in every decision. Acting as though Brussels was a foreign power that is secretly infiltrating Hungary with a hostile, anti-Hungarian network is something I cannot accept.

SPIEGEL: There's also disagreement over the refugee issue. It appears that member states will once again fail to reach an agreement at the EU summit in two weeks over the permanent mechanism for redistributing refugees within Europe. The thinking of many countries is that the Germans invited the refugees, so it is up to them to solve the problem. Are you considering opening infringement procedures against member states that fail to adhere to the agreement -- who, in other words, don't take in enough refugees?

Juncker: We shouldn't be criticizing Germany's refugee policies -- not in the slightest. That was a humanitarian emergency. All the refugees at that train station in Budapest -- you don't even have to think for a moment about what image it would have created for Germany if the chancellor had said: Take care of your own problem, I don't care one iota. Angela Merkel did the right thing. Her decision and the extraordinary willingness of the German people to take in refugees conveyed an image of Germany that is still having positive repercussions today. Unfortunately, people in Germany are no longer seeing that.

SPIEGEL: But since then, Greece and Italy have been left on their own in dealing with refugees. The EU has failed on this point.

Juncker: Now people are criticizing Europe, the European Commission, Juncker and the whole lot because the distribution of refugees didn't succeed immediately. But you also have to recognize that close to 20,000 refugees have already been redistributed. There are only a few member states that do not want to take part. And we will have to address the issue next week of whether we will open infringement procedures or not.

SPIEGEL: Against Slovakia and Hungary?

Juncker: Those and other countries. Those that do not take part have to assume that they will be faced with infringement procedures. The decision hasn't been made yet, but I will say this: I am for it -- not to make a threat, but to make clear that decisions that have been made are applicable law, even if you have voted against it. At issue here is European solidarity, which cannot be a one-way street. The traffic has to move in both directions.

SPIEGEL: Following the elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France, do you think the danger of the right-wing populists has been averted?

Juncker: No. With their enthusiasm over the recent election results, people are overlooking the fact that the threat of the far-right is still there. The monster is still going strong. The right-wing populists gathered millions of votes in all three countries. The problem is that many in the traditional parties parrot everything the populists do. In doing so, they become populists themselves rather than standing in their way.

SPIEGEL: Europe has a new poster boy, freshly elected French President Macron. Does this ever make you a little jealous?

Juncker: No. Why would I be jealous?

SPIEGEL: We had that impression. You recently mentioned that you were already winning elections with pro-European policies 30 years ago.

Juncker: It's true. But that's also easier in Luxembourg than in France. I like Macron a lot and I very much welcome him -- particularly the fact that he made Europe one of the main topics of the election debate.

SPIEGEL: Should the German government make overtures to him?

Juncker: Now we're sliding into the romantic depths of the German-French relationship. Many in Germany are saying that Macron should be helped. That's also how I see it. But Germany cannot solve France's problems. The French president and his government will have to seriously knuckle down in order to pull France out of its slump.

SPIEGEL: Who is better suited to push Europe forward at France's side after Germany's national election this fall? The chancellor or your friend Martin Schulz?

Juncker: I understand the hostile intention of your question and am not amused. So here you go: Both can do it.

SPIEGEL: Elections in Britain on Thursday did not deliver the clarity which had been hoped for. Theresa May's party has lost its absolute majority and has to rely on the support of other parties. What will that mean for Brexit negotiations?

Juncker: The dust still has to settle in Britain. We have been prepared to negotiate for months now. We could start early tomorrow morning. The ball is now in the British court.

SPIEGEL: Many observers are anticipating the talks will collapse early on. Do you have a Plan B?

Juncker: No. I have a plan. It entails leading to a fair deal and relationship with the British. We will be reasonable, but we will also negotiate firmly and without gullibility. I believe we must come to an agreement for the people of Britain and the people on the Continent, but not under exclusively British terms.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect to your optimism ... …

Juncker: … ... I am not optimistic at all …...

SPIEGEL: … ... you can't really deny that a confrontation is approaching. The EU first wants to talk about the rights of its citizens and the money Britain will owe, but the British want to talk about future relations. How can this dilemma be solved?

Juncker: We must discuss the terms of the divorce first before we can enter into a detailed discussion about future relations.

SPIEGEL: The outside world has learned very little that was flattering about the dinner you had with Theresa May. Are the British really entering Brexit negotiations with such naiveté?

Juncker: It was a very friendly and open discussion, during which our contradictory views became apparent. I sincerely regret that the content of our discussion wasn't always perfectly accurately portrayed to the public, even though we are constantly accused of not being transparent. But this kind of transparency is not something I wanted.

SPIEGEL: Why, then, did your head of cabinet leak details of the dinner to the press?

Juncker: We don't know where the leak came from. I also didn't ask my cabinet chief because I trust him. He does good work and I have an excellent team.

SPIEGEL: You recently said: "I assumed office to bring the EU to a point from which there is no going back. Instead, I am having to unwind the EU to a certain extent." Would you say that Brexit is your greatest political defeat of your career?

Juncker: No. Contrary to the widely held belief, I don't feel responsible for Brexit. We didn't interfere in the referendum campaign. But it is true that negotiating Brexit is not a pleasant future task. It is the unwinding of a grand vision. I continue to see Brexit as a tragedy. I enjoy getting married more than I do getting divorced. And now I am spending most of my workweek on Brexit.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 24/2017 (June 10, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: You recently affirmed that you do not intend to continue beyond the end of your term in 2019. What great deeds can we still expect from you?

Juncker: They have long since gone on record.

SPIEGEL: There's nothing left to come?

Juncker: Let me tell you why I announced that I wouldn't seek a second term: So that the parties involved can get used to this terrible event. I haven't yet given everything: I am still full of energy. But I wanted to make it clear that I don't have to make unwarranted concessions to national governments or to parliament. I want to avoid the impression that I am doing things just to ensure that I am re-elected. That's not the case. I have had my career.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, we thank you for this interview.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.